The Knicks‘ season ended with one more loss that hardly went noticed as it was tossed onto the pile of 65 that were collected. We had almost stopped counting some point before the All-Star Break. Bookkeeping still needs to be done and all we know is this year won’t live alone in infamy as the worst in franchise history. It merely matched that of the 2014-15 season.
But unlike 2014-15, this year still has a chance to redeem itself as one to remember, not forget. This was a season that saw the Knicks give three rookies, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier, a wealth of playing time to grow. They added a second-year player in Dennis Smith Jr. in the Kristaps Porzingis trade and there’s also evidence to believe players like Damyean Dotson and Luke Kornet have shown enough to be keepers to fill out a roster that, with about $70 million in salary cap space to spend, is expected to have a lot more talent and experience next season.
“I think we got a chunk of young guys that I think can move forward with us in the future,” David Fizdale said, “and be able to fill in some spots around some veteran players and start moving in a direction of winning.”
A lot depends on what happens after July 1.
But the primary reason why this season might still be one to remember could be what happens on May 14, the date of the NBA Draft Lottery. For the first time in franchise history, the Knicks own the top spot in the lottery. They have a 14% chance to win and land a cornerstone type player like Zion Williamson of Duke.
Even if they dropped to No. 2, the Knicks could still come away with an exciting addition in point guard Ja Morant from Murray State.
The draft is still somewhat of a crapshoot, as there are as many Top-10 busts as there are Top-10 superstars. And since 1990, when the NBA began the weighted lottery system, there have been about 10 No. 1 overall picks that turned into MVP talents and superstars and 11 that either ended up being busts or wound up not being the best player in their draft class.
So obviously, if you’re going to have the worst record in the NBA, you’d want to have it in a year where there’s a player projected to be a cornerstone type player, such as Zion. The only issue for the Knicks is this is the first year the NBA changed the lottery odds, that used to favor the team with the worst record by giving that team a 25% chance to win. Now, the bottom three teams all have an equal 14% chance.
The lowest the Knicks can fall is 5th overall, but it would be most ideal to get a Top-2 pick. Anything beyond that could motivate the Knicks, who already have four players 21 or younger, to see if they can add a significant veteran (Anthony Davis?) in a trade.
With the understanding that the Knicks, using their league-high cap space and their Top-5 pick, should be a better team, it’s not worth going through all of the numbers of the past season. They finished 28th in scoring, 30th in shooting percentage and 30th in assists mainly because they didn’t have enough talent.
There’s only a handful of players expected to return next season and it’s fair to assume all of them are going to be in either their second or third seasons. A year that had so much focus on player development saw a few notable achievements:
— Second-round pick Mitchell Robinson emerged as one of the NBA’s best defensive big men. He finished with a Knicks rookie record 161 blocks and was second in the NBA in blocks per game (2.4). He also had 128 dunks, which was top 15 in the NBA and an outstanding 22.0 PER (Player Efficiency Rating).
— Lottery pick Kevin Knox played the most games (75) and minutes (2,158) on the team. His 12.8 points per game ranked 7th among all rookies in the NBA. He earned Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December. The issues for Knox involved two areas of concern: One was his shooting, as he finished 37% from the field on the season and hit 34.4% from three-point range. The other is his defense, which had a lot to do with awareness and physicality. He is a 19-year-old who won’t turn 20 until August and could benefit from an offseason of weight training and learning from veteran players next season.
— It as somewhat of a surprise that Allonzo Trier went undrafted, but a frustrating night for him at the NBA Draft turned into a blessing when you consider he immediately signed with the Knicks after it was over. Trier quickly proved he belonged in the NBA and turned a two-way G-League contract into a multi-year NBA deal. Trier finished right behind Knox for 8th among rookies in scoring (10.9 points per game) and has an impressive FG/3P/FT slash line: 45%/39%/80%. Trier seems to fit the mold of a future Sixth Man of the Year candidate, similar to Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford.
— Frank Ntilikina had an extremely disappointing second season that lasted just 43 games due to injuries and a few DNP-CDs. His numbers this season actually got worse than his rookie year. He averaged 5.7 points and 2.8 assists in 21 minutes per game and shot 33.7% from the field and 28.7% from three. The struggle for Ntilikina was finding a role on offense because he’s not athletic enough to be a scoring point guard, not heady enough to organize an offense and not accurate enough to be a threat from long range. He has a defensive reputation, but even that didn’t seem to emerge in his second season. If the Knicks add veteran players, which pushes him down the depth chart, it could actually help Ntilikina’s growth. He still needs time to develop and learn the game at this level.
— Dennis Smith Jr. vowed to first get his body healthy this offseason and then focus on his conditioning so he can, as he put it, “be the best version of Dennis Smith Jr. I can be.” We saw flashes of a dynamic athlete at the point who can finish at the rim and be a scorer. What holds him back a lot of times is how quickly his stamina drops off during intense games or in back-to-backs. It will be worth watching to see what he looks like next fall when he returns to training camp. If he commits to become an elite athlete, he could follow the same path as Victor Oladipo. Remember, Oladipo was a lottery pick who the Magic gave up on and traded to the Thunder. It was at OKC that Oladipo saw Russell Westbrook and the commitment he made to his body and preparation. When the Thunder then sent Oladipo to the Pacers, he spent the offseason changing his body and mindset and became an All-Star. Is Smith willing to do the same?
— Lastly, David Fizdale had more to risk than anyone when he accepted this job. He had just been fired less than a month into his second season in Memphis and that was his first head coaching job. To come to New York, understanding it would begin with a “Process” season meant losses. He’s the one that has to carry those Ls on his career record.
“I kind of got over that a long time ago,” he said. “When I signed up from the very beginning to be the head coach of the Knicks, coming into this first year, I put my ego to the side when it came to the record.”
Fizdale said he learned how to be patient. He also learned how to conjure up energy and intensity at the lowest points of the season (remember the 18-game losing streak?) and coached as if every game mattered on the sideline well after the team was eliminated from playoff contention. And even though 65 losses means 65 sleepless nights, he disciplined himself to stay focused on the long-term plan.
“If I’d have got to a point where I’m chasing wins and worrying about personal record,” he said, “it would have knocked us off of what we were trying to do.”
The object now is to continue to develop the players they have and go get more talent so that winning joins development as a priority.
It’s been a long season. But it still could be one to remember.